San Francisco Conservatory Takes on Forsythe

By Emily Hite


After seeing Alex Ketley’s Careless at last summer’s WestWave Dance Festival, audience members might have wondered who were the cast’s athletic and daring creatures that made up the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance Performance Company, and what kind of school cultivates such extraordinary young dancers? Watching an average 10am to 6pm day in the studio, it’s made abundantly clear that the source of their excellence is hard work, grounded in the conscientious rigor of classical ballet and the serious pursuit of artistic growth. The school’s founder and director, Summer Lee Rhatigan, has built a curriculum tied to the exposure to new work and the influences of various artists with the goal of cultivating the dancers’ own points of view. SFCD students, most of whom entered the conservatory after completing high school and range in age from 18 to 23, regularly work with San Francisco-based choreographers Alex Ketley, Robert Moses and Manuelito Biag, and learn the repertory of Jirí Kylián from Glenn Edgerton, former Artistic Director of the Nederlands Dans Theater. Now, through a grant from the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, the Conservatory will spend the coming weeks absorbed in the dance-making process of one of the world’s leading choreographers, William Forsythe.

Forsythe has had a variety of artistic influences and experiences himself. Born, raised and principally trained in New York, he picked up and moved to Germany as a young man to dance with the Stuttgart Ballet, where he later became Resident Choreographer. From 1984 to 2004 he directed the Frankfurt Ballet while choreographing works for companies worldwide. Known for his method of deconstructing the classical ballet vocabulary and deeply investigating its possibilities of form and function, Forsythe created a computer application called Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye in 1994. Applied by professional companies as well as dance schools and universities, the program orients its viewers to Forsythe’s detailed thought process about points of reference within the body that create lines in space and illuminate variations and shifts in those lines. SFCD will offer a two-week immersion in the Forsythe Improvisation Technologies followed by four weeks applying newfound knowledge and tools in the restaging of the choreographer’s 1989 work, Enemy in the Figure. Former Frankfurt Ballet dancer and Forsythe’s long-time associate, Thomas McManus, will conduct the workshop and head the work’s revival during the program, which takes place June 4-July 14. Advanced dancers aged 17–25 chosen from the SFCD Summer Session’s national audition tour will join year-round Conservatory students to take part in the project. Rhatigan expects that this assembly of interesting people and appetent dancers—twenty-six in all—will engage in a dialogue with McManus and with Forsythe’s movement material. She hopes the artists will learn from one another’s contributions and curiosities throughout the process, informing the next generation of improvisation technologies and revealing details contained within the ballet as it lives today. The work will be performed in two student demonstrations, July 13 at 7 pm and July 14 at 2 pm at the Regency Center in San Francisco; both viewings are open to the public.

The SFCD Forsythe project showcase follows two Bay Area viewings of Forsythe’s body of work in recent months. In February, San Francisco Ballet danced Forsythe’s ultra-ballet, Artifact Suite (Artifact premiered in 1984; Artifact Suite was assembled from the earlier work by the choreographer in 2004). The ballet is constructed from classically based lines both amplified within the dancer’s body and multiplied among the large cast of dancers; still it gives equal consideration to movement pathways. The coolness of minimalist costuming and abstract format is coupled with an effective theatrical effect: a black drop repeatedly crashes in front of the stage action, censoring what the audience sees. In a divergent performance experience later that month, the choreographer’s own Dresden and Frankfurt—based Forsythe Company encountered UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with Three Atmospheric Studies, an evening-length work that contemplates the current Iraq war. In this piece content overshadows form, which ranges from pedestrian movement to dialogue to physical theater as it follows a thread of traumatic war experiences from an oddly detached vantage point. Here Forsythe has given his audience a less dense design in favor of more raw material to put together and struggle with.

Whether Forsythe is investigating lines in space or trying to make sense of the world’s atrocities, Rhatigan says it is the way he practices his art that excites her. Forsythe’s compulsion to produce honest work that is not coming out of a need to serve or entertain, but is rather a personal and visceral expression, aligns with the Conservatory’s mission to develop creative sensibilities in its student body. Through constant exposure to new perspectives working to evolve concert dance, members of the Conservatory absorb and produce a wealth of information in their daily experimentation with movement. Forsythe’s model of fearlessness, relayed and magnified through McManus’s ambassadorship, is one force driving young dancers to uncover and nurture their individual voices. According to Rhatigan, “The study of Forsythe’s work is very much in keeping with our goal of presenting students with artistic role models who embrace the collaborative process.”

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of In Dance.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.